Bureaucrats should not choose public art

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Unlike Calgary, there is absolutely no disagreement in Dunhuang about the right of artists to protect and preserve their creations.


Published on Monday, September 18, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—Imagine a public arts policy where bureaucrats choose the art.

No, we are not talking China. The City of Calgary has recently been debating a motion to freeze public art investment, because some councillors are not happy with controversial art installations.

Calgary councillor Shane Keating recently spoke to the media about the motion to freeze the public art policy until changes are made.

His comments in explaining the freeze left arts supporters shaking their heads.

“I think we need to move away from the concept the artist gets to decide what it looks like,” Keating told the media.

“The taxpayers are actually commissioning the artwork and they should have a very large say in what the final piece should actually look like rather than the artist’s interpretation.”

On the contrary, the concept of artistic freedom is designed to ensure that creative interpretation is not ruined by bureaucratic meddling.

On this political discussion, Calgary could actually learn something from China.

I have just returned from the 5th Canada-China Cultural Dialogue held in Dunhuang, on the edge of the Silk Road.

The dialogue focused on ‘Innovation and Ingenuity,’ and included professional presentations from museum and gallery leaders from both countries.

John McAvity, chief executive officer of the Canadian Museums Association, was one of the participants.

He underscored the important opportunity for our museums and galleries prompted by a 400 per cent increase in Chinese tourism to Canada.

The Canadian delegation included almost two dozen creative professionals and museum leaders from Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, and Montreal. The CMA board president, who hails from the Timmins Museum in Ontario, also joined the group.

The brains behind the ongoing dialogue, started nine years ago, is Dr. Nelly Ng, a Canadian physician from Scarborough. She has committed a lifetime of volunteer effort to the preservation of her Chinese heritage.

Ng initiated the dialogue almost a decade ago, after having spent the previous 10 years establishing the Canadian Foundation for the Preservation of Chinese Cultural Heritage.

Ng’s passion led to the creation of a not-for-profit organization which seeks to link museum directors and artistic leaders from both countries.

Thus far, there have been five exchanges, involving more than 200 artistic professionals from both countries. The dialogues have actually led to the opportunity for Canadian and Chinese artistic professionals to share work experiences.

In some instances, Canadian conservation professionals have worked in Chinese museums and galleries, and their Chinese counterparts have come to Canada for similar exchanges.

The relationship is so strong that at the recent September meeting, the Chinese proposed the establishment of a bilateral memorandum of understanding between Canadian and Chinese museums.

If the MOU negotiations are successful, both organizations are hoping to have the agreement signed next April when the Canadian Museums Association hosts its next annual meeting in Vancouver.

Ng, whose personal mission has been the inspiration for this strong relationship, is motivated by her love for the deep history of Chinese cultural heritage.

She singlehandedly spearheaded the Canadian Fund for International understanding through culture to reinforce her deep connection with Chinese heritage. It’s short name is Can4Culture, and the organization includes Governor General of Canada David Johnston as honorary patron.

According to Ng, the mandate of Can4Culture is to “support cultural exchange, student exchange and … cultural heritage, art, literature, drama, music science and history.”

At the meeting in Gansu province, Canadian visitors got the chance to witness firsthand cultural treasures that date back more than 2000 years.

The Mogao Caves and grottoes were carved by Buddhist worshippers along the original Silk Road at the edge of the Gobi desert. The creations are a Chinese treasure that has been recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Dunhuang, located in the heart of Gansu province, was teaming with tourists.

However, most of them were Chinese. With a population of more than 1.2 billion people, Chinese heritage sites’ first mission is to encourage local participation.

In addition, the local, provincial and national governments invest heavily in research and interpretation support.

The Mogao destination is stunning. The work involved in grotto interpretation involves dozens of arts professionals whose sole aim is to promote research and education about the artists and worshippers who created and protected the site.

This stunning Silk Road site is a treasure trove of artistic creation.

For lovers of history and heritage, Mogao is a must see on anyone’s bucket list.

Unlike Calgary, there is absolutely no disagreement in Dunhuang about the right of artists to protect and preserve their creations.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.